The Monasteries of the Meteora came to the worlds attention in 1981 when they were shown on the big screen in For Your Eyes Only. The ancient monasteries perched high above the Thessalian plain became the perfect Bond villain hideout. The scenery and setting were used to good effect. Filming was only marred by Roger Moore taking lots of Valium to cope with the the precarious heights and the monks hanging out their washing to disrupt the filming. Athens had cleared the filming, but they had forgot to check with the monks first.
It was this film (my favourite of the series, by the way) which drew me to the Meteora. If I was going to come to Greece, then the startling rocks overlooking Kalambaka were top of my list. Aghias Trias is the name of the monastery where they filmed it. It lies on the eastern loop of the road through the mountains, not far from the convent of Aghios Stefanos and overlooking the town of Kalambaka. I saw it on my tour and we were allowed out to take pictures of the monastery from the road/cliff edge. It does seem more isolated than most of the others. The 800 ft high volcanic plug is away from the main mountain and traversed by hundreds of stone steps. The terracotta roofs were in evidence and seemed to extend over the cliff edge. The domes of a chapel could be seen and the whole thing seemed moulded out of the volcanic plug, as if it has grown organically on its crown.
But the Meteora has twenty of these monasteries. Nowhere else on earth is there such a concentration of medieval monasteries in such a spectacular setting. Wherever you are in Kalambaka your eyes will be drawn to these colossi on the edge of town. The whole set of pinnacles and rocks are the remains of river sediment that covered the plain of Thessaly 25 million years ago. They were moulded through the aeons by tectonic pressure and by the river Pindos eroding its way through. To me, along with Mykonos, they were the highlight of my trip to Greece. One of the most rewarding sights I have ever seen.
The Meteora is over 200 miles from Athens in the province of Thessaly; smack in the middle of the country. There is a railhead with Athens and Kalambaka is the end of the line. There are two express trains from Athens' Larisa station each day. Both taking five hours with no stops. The station is in the south east of the town and easily walkable to the main street. Accommodation touts meet every bus and train but often the hotels they are offer in Kalambaka are substandard.
I took a tour from Athens which is a good way to do it if you don't have your own transport. This also meant I could see aspects of mainland Greece that were not open to me on public transport and the whole journey took five hours from Delphi, seven hours from Athens. Also traversing Hellas like this explains why Greece developed the way it did - city state fighting city state - they were all cut off by mountains. You have to cross about three mountain ranges to get to the plain of Thessaly. The mountains hit the plain at Lamia you can continue onto the plain or turn right to the Aegean sea. This was also where the battle of Thermopylae happened in 480 BC. The Spartans made their final stand on the slope against the 30,000 Persian army of King Xerxes. A statue of a Greek warrior commemorates it today.
Kalambaka and Kastraki
Two towns lie in the shadow of the Pindos mountains. The first Kalambaka is the largest and stands in the southern shadow, the mountains on the most eastern side of the Meteora directly overlook it. The smaller is Kastraki, a charming village to the west of the Meteora. This is a more authentically "Greek" place to stay but does not have the tourist facilities of Kalambaka. Kalambaka was burnt by the Nazis in World War II so there are not many old buildings in town (the Meteora seems a perfect place for partisans to hide out ). It does, however, stay at one storey height so as to not destroy the view of the mountains. The main street is full of hotels catering to tour groups but there are still some budget hotels if you take care to look. The main street itself is a nice place to relax after spending all day with the crowds viewing the monasteries. There are many restaurants, banks, and souvenir shops where you can buy postcards of the monasteries out of range of you and your camera.
Kastraki is another option. This was a definite village and was moulded into the surrounding rocks and pine groves. It's much more traditionally Greek with people living in houses covered in vines with goats outside. Many have set themselves up as guesthouses and there was definitely a more mellow air in Kastraki with no traffic on the roads and walking trails leading up into the hills.
Getting to the monasteries
Only six monasteries are open to the public each day. And they are spread over a vertiginous area twenty miles in diameter. The road from Kastraki (in the west) to Ayia Stefanou (in the east) is 10 km. This is no straight highway - it snakes around the mountains often with thousand feet drops on one side and menaced by speeding tour buses. I did see people walk this tarmacked road and they did have more freedom then those on the tour buses but they also looked hotter and more exhausted.
There are buses up to Varlaam from Kalambaka. From there you could see a few monasteries before taking hiking trails back to the town. The buses leave early about 8.20am from Kalambaka. Also, there are agencies in town who do daily tours for about 50 euros. This cuts out a lot of the hassle of getting to monasteries but does mean you have to share them with the other tour parties. Also, do not forget about the dress code. No shorts, and both sexes must cover their shoulders. Women must wear skirts and men long trousers. And finally, there is no food or drink up at the monasteries. They are still living breathing places of worship and not theme parks. Bring any drinks or food with you. And on a hot day hiking up stone steps in the Meteora - be careful not to dehydrate.
Despite all these precautions and maybe because of the trouble as they are so remote the Meteora is more authentic and rewarding. When you stand on the edge of one of the monasteries and see the jumbled mountainous landscape around you then you can see the attraction of becoming a monk.
Minus the itchy woollen habit of course...